Statutory TB testing of cattle in GB during the COVID-19 outbreak

The Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA) recognises the potential challenges faced by farmers during the COVID-19 outbreak. APHA has a contingency plan in place for the specific scenario of reduced veterinary capacity to undertake TB skin testing.

APHA published advice for vets on 19 March 2020 in order to ensure a consistent approach to the prioritisation of TB testing across GB. Further APHA briefing notes for official veterinarians (OVs) have since been published on the APHA Vet Gateway and will continue to be updated as the outbreak progresses.

At present APHA is continuing to instruct statutory TB skin testing, however the UK Chief Veterinary Officer is keeping this under constant review. APHA is continuing to closely monitor the situation, and adjustments to TB testing instructions may be made as appropriate, as the COVID-19 outbreak progresses. The Q&A below applies to GB, unless specifically stated otherwise.

Q&A

General

It is normal to feel unsettled during this type of fast-moving situation. In addition to the general COVID-19 advice on GOV.UK, farmers can access various support organisations which can help, including the Farming Community Network across England and Wales, Tir Dewi in Wales and RSABI in Scotland.

 

Farming Community Network 03000 111999 (open 7am to 11pm)
Tir Dewi 0800 121 4722 (open 7am to 10pm)
RSABI 0300 111 4166 (open 7am to 11pm)
Samaritans 116 123 (open 24 hours a day)

 

The FarmWell website has lots of useful information on maintaining your personal and business resilience. The Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) has a page on COVID-19 advice for farmers and growers. For further information about the UK government response to COVID-19 including advice for businesses, visit GOV.UK

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) published a joint statement with the British Veterinary Association (BVA) on 20 March 2020 containing guidance on the status of vets as key workers. Vets working in food production from ‘farm to fork’ are considered to be key workers, which includes farm vets and official veterinarians (OVs) working in the food chain, including abattoir and other related inspection and certification work. APHA’s current position is that TB testing should only continue if, in the OV’s judgement, it can be done safely in accordance with current COVID-19 public health advice. The BVA and British Cattle Veterinary Association (BCVA) have both published guidance for vets continuing to TB test, and how it might be done safely.

TB testing should only continue if, in the vet’s judgement, it can be done safely in accordance with current COVID-19 public health advice. Vets are encouraged to have a conversation with the farmer and carry out a risk assessment before visiting the farm, to ensure that it is safe and practical to carry out TB testing whilst observing the advice on social distancing. Farmers can help by ensuring that they have good animal handling facilities in place to minimise human to human contact. They should observe social distancing advice and stay at least two metres (six feet) apart from the vet when the testing is being carried out. It is advised that the minimum number of people attend the test whilst maintaining safe handling of the animals.

If you have symptoms of COVID-19 (high temperature, new continuous cough, loss of or change to your sense of smell or taste), then NHS advice is that you need to self-isolate at home. In this case, you should not present your cattle for TB testing. Please contact your Veterinary Delivery Partner (VDP) in England and Wales, or official veterinarian (OV) in Scotland who carries out your TB testing. They will discuss rearranging your TB test with you, taking into account veterinary resource available at that time, and whether it can be done safely in accordance with current COVID-19 public health advice. If the test cannot be rearranged within your testing window, ask your VDP or OV to contact APHA so this can be recorded.

If you are required to self-isolate at home due to someone in your household showing symptoms of COVID-19, you should not present your cattle for TB testing. Please contact your VDP in England and Wales, or official veterinarian (OV) in Scotland who carries out your TB testing. They will discuss rearranging your TB test with you, taking into account veterinary resource available at that time, and whether it can be done safely in accordance with current COVID-19 public health advice. If the test cannot be rearranged within your testing window, ask your VDP or OV to contact APHA so this can be recorded.

If you need to self-isolate at home due to your age, a long-term health condition, pregnancy or a weakened immune system, you should not present your cattle for TB testing. Please contact your VDP in England and Wales or official veterinarian (OV) in Scotland. They will discuss rearranging your TB test with you, taking into account veterinary resource available at that time, and whether it can be done safely in accordance with current COVID-19 public health advice. If the test cannot be rearranged within your testing window, ask your VDP or OV to contact APHA so this can be recorded.

TB skin testing in officially TB free herds

In England, until further notice, APHA will allow the closing date of a testing window to be delayed on a case by case basis. This will only be permitted on one occasion, and APHA will retain discretion on permitting this change in all cases. For surveillance tests, the closing date of the testing window can be delayed to help facilitate completion of the test. A testing window of three months will be delayed for an additional two months and a testing window of two months will be delayed for an additional month. Adjustments will be permitted for tests that are allocated over the next three months. After this period, testing instructions will revert to normal, unless advised otherwise. OVs should first discuss the implications of delaying the testing window with the farmer, as this could have unforeseen consequences, for example with animals being turned out at summer grazing. To request a delay to a testing window, OVs should contact APHA by email at [email protected]

In Wales there is no change to the testing window for officially TB free (OTF) herds, but cattle keepers wishing to test up to 30 days before the testing window opens can do so by contacting their OV practice and APHA.

In Scotland, there are currently no changes to the instructions on flexibility for routine surveillance tests. This will be kept under review.

It has always been the case that some TB tests, particularly for large herds, are routinely completed in several parts. If one or more parts of a test are still outstanding when the testing window closes, the test becomes overdue. Due to reduced levels of TB testing during the COVID-19 outbreak and/or difficulties safely testing some individual cattle, testing of more herds may need to be completed over a protracted period, and this means that large tests are more likely to become overdue. If a TB test becomes overdue, whole herd movement restrictions are automatically applied and the herd’s officially TB free status is suspended (OTFS) until the test of all eligible animals has been completed with negative results. Even if part(s) of the test have been completed, the whole herd is still subject to movement restrictions, not just the animals yet to be tested. Once the test is completed at a later date, the next TB test of the affected herd will be scheduled in line with the date by which the test should have been completed, not when it was actually completed.

Normally all bovines 42 days of age and older must be included in herd skin tests carried out to maintain or restore the herd’s officially TB free (OTF) status. If not all eligible animals are tested, then the test is considered incomplete, and the animals must be tested at a later date to complete the test. This is a requirement to maintain the recognition by international trade partners of the OTF status conferred on cattle herds in GB. 

In England and Wales only, a temporary amendment to the TB testing instructions is in place which applies retrospectively from 23 March 2020 until further notice. Movement restrictions will not be placed on OTF herds undergoing routine or targeted surveillance TB skin tests if cattle under 180 days old at the start of the test are left untested because, in the vet’s judgement, they can’t be tested safely in line with current COVID-19 public health (social distancing) guidelines. Please note that a TB herd test will only qualify if all other eligible animals in the herd (including calves which can be tested safely) have been tested with negative results within the relevant test window. This temporary amendment will be kept under regular review while the social distancing measures related to the COVID-19 outbreak are in place.

Yes. If tuberculins have been injected and the test couldn’t be read within 72 hours (+/- 4 hours), then the test is not valid and must be repeated. The test cannot be repeated until at least 60 days have elapsed from the date of previous injection of tuberculins.

The requirements for statutory pre- and post-movement TB testing remain unchanged. If you are intending to move cattle off your holding that require a pre-movement test, contact your vet in good time to make sure that they can accommodate the testing. As these are private tests, if the vet that normally carries out your TB testing is unavailable, then another vet with the relevant official controls qualification for TB testing can undertake the testing. Before purchasing cattle, check that animals requiring a pre-movement test have been tested with negative results. For farmers in the Low Risk Area of England, Low TB Area of Wales, and in Scotland, you are strongly advised to check with your vet that they can accommodate statutory post-movement testing of eligible animals within the required window before moving cattle onto your holding.   

Due to reduced veterinary capacity for TB testing during the COVID-19 outbreak and to ease the burden on farmers, rollout of this policy is being deferred until the situation improves. Further information will follow in due course.

TB skin testing of calves in officially TB free herds

Calves under 42 days old do not generally need to be TB tested. Though in Scotland and Wales, they are included in short interval tests of TB breakdown herds, and in Wales only, in check tests. APHA acknowledges that it may not be possible to carry out TB testing of young calves whilst maintaining social distancing, as close human contact may be required to handle, restrain and test them.

In England and Wales only, a temporary amendment to the TB testing instructions is in place retrospectively from 23 March 2020 until further notice. Calves under 180 days old at the start of a routine or targeted herd surveillance TB test can be excluded from skin testing in officially TB free (OTF) herds if, in the vet’s judgement, they can’t be tested safely in line with social distancing. This temporary amendment will be applied retrospectively to incomplete tests where the final part of the test would have commenced on or after 23 March 2020, and to any qualifying tests from now on until further notice. It will be kept under regular review while the social distancing measures related to the COVID-19 outbreak are in place.

Calves 42 days old and over will still require TB skin testing where social distancing requirements can be met in a routine or targeted herd surveillance test, and in the following circumstances:

  • in herds undergoing short interval or check testing due to a TB breakdown (in Wales, this also applies to calves under 42 days old)
  • if they are intended for export (private pre-export testing)
  • if they are identified by APHA as tracings to or from a TB breakdown herd
  • if they had been identified as inconclusive reactors and were awaiting a skin re-test
  • if they are being moved off a holding and that movement normally requires pre-movement TB testing
  • if the animals require post-movement TB testing after moving to holdings in Scotland, the Low Risk Area in England or Low TB Area in Wales from a holding in an area of higher TB incidence

If all eligible animals 180 days old and over have been TB tested with negative results, the test will be considered complete. Any calves 42 to 179 days old that can’t be tested safely whilst maintaining social distancing will be left untested until the next TB test of the herd. In the meantime, pre- and post-movement TB testing rules continue to apply.

In Scotland, normal TB testing procedures still apply. If it’s not possible to safely TB test calves whilst maintaining social distancing, the vet must record this on the test chart and the test will be incomplete. If the test is not completed within the testing window, then the whole test will become overdue. The whole herd will be placed under movement restrictions and its OTF status suspended until all eligible animals are tested with negative results.

In England and Wales only, a temporary amendment to the TB testing instructions is retrospectively in place from 23 March 2020 until further notice. Calves under 180 days old at the start of the test can be excluded from TB skin testing in officially TB free herds if, in the vet’s judgement, they can’t be tested safely in line with social distancing. If your vet can’t safely TB test calves 42 to 179 days old, they will enter a specific code next to these animals on the test chart when submitting it to APHA. As long as all the other eligible animals in the herd are tested, the TB test will be considered complete. Any calves 42 to 179 days old that can’t be tested safely whilst maintaining social distancing will be left untested until the next TB test of the herd. In the meantime, pre- and post-movement TB testing rules continue to apply. If your vet decides that it’s safe to skin test a group of calves under 180 days old, then all the eligible calves in that management group should be tested.

Analysis of historical data from TB skin testing in England and Wales suggests that a small number of TB-infected herds may not be detected if youngstock are not tested. However there are also risks that farmers may choose not to test at all if they are going to be put under restrictions due to the youngstock not being able to be tested safely. This could also result in infected animals and breakdowns remaining undetected, with potential further spread within the herd, and to contiguous herds and local wildlife. During the current COVID-19 outbreak, the benefits of this temporary change to encourage the continued TB testing of most animals, outweighs the risks of missing a small number of infected herds where only youngstock are infected. Maintaining pre-movement and post-movement TB testing requirements will help mitigate any increased risks.

Yes. The temporary amendment in England and Wales regarding TB testing of calves under 180 days old does not apply to pre-export TB tests. All cattle 42 days old and over still require a TB test with negative results prior to export. If your vet cannot TB test calves safely in line with social distancing rules, then the export cannot go ahead.

No. The temporary amendment in England and Wales allowing calves under 180 days old to be excluded from TB testing in officially TB free herds does not apply to pre- and post-movement TB testing. The requirements for statutory pre- and post-movement TB testing of cattle in GB continue to apply. If your vet can’t pre-movement TB test calves safely observing social distancing, then the proposed movement cannot go ahead and the animals must remain on the holding until they can be TB tested safely.

No. The temporary amendment allowing calves under 180 days old to be excluded from TB testing in officially TB free herds does not apply to pre- and post-movement TB testing. The requirements for statutory pre- and post-movement TB testing of cattle in GB continue to apply as normal. You will still need to post-movement TB test the animals within 60-120 days of moving onto your holding.

TB skin testing in TB-restricted herds

In breakdown herds, short interval tests (SITs) will continue to be scheduled from 60 days after the last reactor is removed. The window for completion of SITs is 30 days. In England and Wales, until further notice, closure of the testing window for short interval tests will be delayed by 30 days, meaning that the window for completion of the test will now be 60 days. This will be kept under review. In Scotland, short interval testing windows remain unchanged and the situation will be kept under review.

If reactors are found in this situation and it’s not possible to safely TB test some or all eligible calves under 180 days old, provided all other eligible animals were tested, APHA will schedule breakdown testing even though the skin test that triggered the breakdown is incomplete. The first short interval test (SIT) of your herd will be scheduled for 60 days after removal of the last reactor. You and your vet should consider whether animals that could not be TB tested safely at the disclosing test have grown to a size where they can be tested safely at the first SIT.  

This will depend on whether reactors are disclosed at the short interval test (SIT). If eligible calves under 180 days old can’t be TB tested safely and at least one reactor is found, provided all other eligible animals in the herd were tested, APHA will schedule the next SIT as usual even though the test is incomplete. The next SIT will be scheduled for 60 days after removal of the last reactor. You and your vet should consider whether animals that could not be TB tested safely at the previous test have grown to a size where they can be tested safely at the next SIT. If eligible calves under 180 days old can’t be TB tested safely and the rest of the eligible animals in the herd test negative (or only one or more inconclusive reactors are found), the test is incomplete and can’t count as a qualifying test for the purposes of restoring herd OTF status. If any adjustments can be made to allow younger animals to be TB tested safely, your vet should make arrangements to return to complete the test. If there is no realistic prospect of them returning soon to complete the test, APHA will considered it a check test and will schedule a further SIT. All eligible animals in a TB breakdown herd, including those under 180 days old, must complete the required number of TB skin tests with negative results before herd OTF status can be restored. Herds in the High Risk Area and Edge Area of England and herds with OTF status withdrawn (OTFW) in Wales must complete at least two rounds of short interval testing with negative results. OTF status suspended (OTFS) herds in Wales are required to complete one SIT, and OTFS herds in the Low Risk Area of England one or more SITs before OTF status can be restored. The number of SITs and the interpretation, in most instances, depends on whether any typical lesions of TB are found and/or M. bovis, the bacterium that causes TB, is identified in the test reactor(s) or slaughterhouse case(s) that triggered the breakdown.

In Wales, most TB breakdown herds require two consecutive short interval tests (SIT) with negative results to regain officially TB free status. During the COVID-19 outbreak, these tests may need to be completed in two or more parts. The time taken to complete the final part of the potential ‘releasing SIT’ (the test before movement restrictions are lifted), can be extended to a maximum of 120 days. A delay of over 30 days in completing the final part of the releasing SIT will affect scheduling of the first post-breakdown check test of the herd (6M test).

When a slaughterhouse case is found, the herd’s officially TB free (OTF) status is suspended and the herd of origin of that animal is placed under movement restrictions. Food Standards Agency meat inspectors send samples of the TB lesion(s) found in the carcase to an APHA laboratory to try to identify the TB bacterium M. bovis. In the meantime, APHA will instruct your vet to carry out an immediate skin check test of the herd. If M. bovis is identified in the laboratory, further breakdown testing can be scheduled even if eligible animals under 180 days old were not included in the immediate check test because social distancing could not be maintained.

If eligible calves under 180 days old can’t be TB tested safely whilst maintaining social distancing, as long as all other eligible animals in the unit have been tested with negative results, APHA will schedule the next routine test. When submitting the test chart to APHA, your vet will enter a specific code next to any calves aged 42-179 days old that couldn’t be TB tested safely whilst maintaining social distancing.

Overdue TB skin tests

No. APHA will maintain the start date of the window when the test should have been completed so that future routine surveillance tests still happen at the same time of year.

APHA acknowledges that some farmers will not be able to present their cattle for TB testing during the COVID-19 outbreak. This may be as a result of illness due to COVID-19, the need for self-isolation, caring for others who are ill or self-isolating, or childcare duties following school closures. In the first instance, please contact your VDP in England and Wales, or OV in Scotland to discuss rearranging your TB test. If it’s not possible to complete your TB test within the prescribed window, the test will become overdue. You should contact APHA for advice as soon as possible, preferably before the test becomes overdue. In the event of tests becoming overdue, APHA will follow the established procedures. Whole herd movement restrictions are automatically placed on the holding and the herd’s officially TB free (OTF) status is suspended (OTFS). This is because once a test becomes overdue, the TB status of the herd is unknown and it will be considered a potential risk to other herds. APHA’s overdue TB test procedure already has a built-in check point to assess for any exceptional circumstances that prevented the test being completed on time. To facilitate this check, VDPs and OVs will share information with APHA on which holdings and TB tests are being delayed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Cattle keepers must ensure that animal welfare is not compromised whilst their herd is under movement restrictions due to overdue TB testing. It is strongly advised that farmers contingency plan for this situation as the COVID-19 outbreak progresses.

Until further advised, keepers will not be referred to the relevant paying agency for overdue TB tests if they and/or their OV advise APHA that the test could not be completed during the testing window for reasons associated with the COVID-19 outbreak. Farmers must still aim to complete TB testing on time, and if possible contact their OV and APHA to discuss their situation before their test becomes overdue. The procedures in place to enforce overdue TB testing will be kept under review.

In England, Scotland and Wales, legislation does allow for the reduction of compensation payments where a keeper has failed to TB test their animals on time. Reductions in compensation apply to any reactors found at tests that are overdue by 60 days or more. However, until further advised, reactors found at overdue TB tests will not be subject to compensation reduction if the keeper and/or their OV advise APHA that the test could not be completed during the testing window for reasons associated with the COVID-19 outbreak. This will be kept under review.

Whole herd movement restrictions are automatically placed on cattle herds that become overdue with their TB testing, and their officially TB free (OTF) status is suspended (OTFS). This means that cattle cannot move onto or off the holding without a licence issued by APHA. If you are in this situation and you wish to move cattle, you need to apply to APHA for a licence using the following contact details.

England
03000 200 301
[email protected]
A licence application form is available on GOV.UK to complete and email to APHA

Wales
0300 303 8268
[email protected]

Scotland
03000 600 704
[email protected]

All movements must be licensed by APHA. Please refer to specific guidance on licensing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Private interferon-gamma blood testing in England 

Yes, although this is subject to laboratory availability. APHA laboratories are running at reduced capacity due to the COVID-19 outbreak and as such, mandatory interferon-gamma tests are being prioritised. From 1 August 2020, APHA will accept requests for private interferon-gamma testing, although the situation is being kept under review. Please refer your vet to the APHA Vet Gateway for further information.

TB testing and movements of cattle to and from common land 

In England, all cattle in an annual or more frequently tested herd aged 42 days and over moving to and from common land must have tested negative to a tuberculin skin test within 60 days before movement. APHA will only consider licensing some cattle movements without pre-movement TB testing on an exceptional basis where an agreed TB control plan for the whole common is in place (see next question). Untested cattle are a disease risk as their TB infection status is unknown. Turning untested cattle out onto common land presents an unacceptably high risk of transmission of undetected TB infection to other cattle herds, and spillover into local wildlife. Any eligible calves (or other animals) that can’t be TB tested safely whilst maintaining social distancing will not be able to move to common land. You and your vet will need to discuss whether alternative arrangements can be put in place to allow calves to be tested safely, or alternatively your vet will need to return to test them at a later date.

 

In Wales, all cattle in a holding in the Intermediate or High TB Areas aged 42 days and over moving to and from common land must have tested negative to a tuberculin skin test within 60 days before movement, although there are options for keepers to adopt alternative arrangements. A herd surveillance TB test can count as a pre-movement test, and for herd surveillance tests temporary arrangements are currently in place to allow the exclusion of calves under 180 days old from TB testing. Providing the surveillance test is completed as required, animals under 180 days old can move under licence to common land under this arrangement for 60 days after the test, without pre-movement testing. This temporary arrangement also applies to herds which turn their cattle out onto common land adjacent to their holding and have elected to carry out six-monthly whole herd surveillance TB testing (both for the government-funded and the privately funded test). However, any cattle moving off these holdings into other herds will still require pre-movement TB testing.

APHA will exceptionally consider licensing some cattle movements without pre-movement TB testing where veterinary judgement is that an agreed TB control plan for the whole common gives at least the same level of assurance as TB testing would provide. Commoners covered by a bespoke, pre-agreed TB control plan should contact APHA to discuss their specific circumstances.

Once a TB test becomes overdue, the whole herd is placed under movement restrictions and its officially TB free (OTF) status is suspended. Movement restrictions remain in place until all eligible animals are TB tested with negative results. Whilst under movement restrictions, cattle can’t move on or off the holding unless licensed by APHA.

 

In England, all eligible animals 180 days old and over need to complete a TB skin test with negative results to lift movement restrictions. However, calves under 180 days old that couldn’t be tested safely and were excluded from the surveillance TB test will not be able to move to common land, even if the rest of the herd has been TB tested with negative results. Animals 42 days old and over moving to and from common land will still be required to complete a pre-movement TB test with negative results within 60 days before movement.

 

In Wales, all eligible animals 180 days old and over need to complete a TB skin test with negative results to lift movement restrictions. That will allow you to turn cattle tested in the last 60 days and calves under 42 days old out onto common land.  Untested calves under 180 days old can be licensed to common land under the temporary arrangements described in the answer to the first question.